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2020 marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. I originally intended to write a blog post about this in the anniversary month of April, but illness prevented this. But I can do it now, better late than never, and still in time before the end of the 700th anniversary year.

The Declaration of Arbroath was a letter of April 1320, from the Scottish barons to Pope John XXII. It asserts the independence of Scotland, in particular with regard to the threats from England, and asks the Pope for his support and assistance. The letter was drawn up probably at Newbattle, but then written at Arbroath Abbey, the chancery or royal writing house at the time. A particularly famous part of the letter is the following, which is oft cited even to this day, especially in the context of moves for Scottish independence.

As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself

The number of men who signed the letter is problematic. 39 names are definitely included in the document itself, and would have had their seals attached. Seals are also attached for an additional 7 names which can be identified. It is thought that there may have been as many as 50 seals originally. So 39, 46 or 50? The number is tricky to pin down. However historians tend to agree on the core 39, plus the additional 7 names with seals attached and identifiable. So that was the list of “signatories” that I chose to work from.

Picture of Declaration of Arbroath, showing the seals attached to it

Given this list of signatories I wondered how many I could confidently identify as known ancestors of myself. I’ve traced my family tree for nearly 40 years, and my ancestry includes numerous noble and royal lines, including King James IV of Scotland and his antecedents, as well as other genealogical links back to the earlier Stewart kings. So it was worth a punt.

I started from the list of 46 names, to see what I could find. Some names jumped out as ancestors immediately, others needed more digging. My source material is primarily published genealogies about Scottish noble families, such as James Balfour Paul’s Scots peerage volumes. There are problems with published peerages and genealogies. In particular they tend to miss daughters, and can be vague on younger sons, both things I’ve found myself where I’ve researched landed families to plug gaps re ancestors, e.g. the Douglases of Drumlanrig, and Scotts of Woll in the 16th and 17th centuries. Published genealogies are also sometimes dodgy on wives. Not ideal! But they’re the best I have, so I saw where I could get with them. It’s probably more likely I am underestimating the number of my ancestors among the signatories than overestimating them.

From the list of 46 known names I could identify 22 as (probably, bearing in mind the published genealogy issues) g..granddads or brothers of g..granddads or g..grannies. I was initially intending just to include direct g..granddads I found in the list. But then I thought again, and realised just how much I value g..uncles and their stories in more recent parts of my family tree. And if a g..uncle signed the Declaration of Arbroath I’d be interested in knowing that too! In practice the majority of my ancestral signatory identifications were g..granddads, 17/22. The other 5 were g..uncles, brothers of g..granddads or g..grannies. Those g..uncle “ancestors” below have asterisks (*) after their names in the list of 22 here.

  • Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray
  • Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March (or Earl of Dunbar)*
  • Malise, Earl of Strathearn
  • William, Earl of Ross
  • Walter, High Steward of Scotland (son-in-law of King Robert the Bruce)
  • Sir James Douglas, Lord of Douglas
  • David de Graham of Kincardine (grandfather of Robert II’s Queen)
  • John de Menteith, guardian of the earldom of Menteith
  • Alexander Fraser of Touchfraser and Cowie
  • Gilbert de la Hay, Constable of Scotland
  • Robert Keith, Marischal of Scotland*
  • Henry St Clair of Rosslyn
  • David Lindsay of Crawford
  • John de Fenton, Lord of Baikie and Beaufort*
  • William de Abernethy of Saltoun
  • David Wemyss of Wemyss
  • Eustace Maxwell of Caerlaverock*
  • Donald Campbell*
  • Alexander Seton
  • Andrew de Leslie
  • Edward Keith (later Marischal of Scotland)
  • John de Inchmartin

This list includes 4/8 earls who signed the Declaration of Arbroath, and numerous other lords and barons. In the second group are Robert the Bruce’s son-in-law Walter, High Steward. Other post holders include the Constable of Scotland, Gilbert de la Hay, and the Marischal of Scotland, Robert Keith. 20 of the 22 ancestor names are from the 39 names of men whose names appear as signatories directly on the original document. Only 2 of the 22 names – Edward Keith, later Marischal of Scotland (and brother of Robert above), and John de Inchmartin – were among the extra 7 names not written in the document, but whose seals were attached.

How do I feel about knowing that my ancestors signed this iconic document in Scottish history? I think I do feel a stronger sense of connection with this past, on a personal level. It makes it less abstract as a concept, and something that I can envisage more through the people involved.

What I don’t have in this, and I must make absolutely clear, is a sense of unusualness. Many, indeed probably most, Scots will be descended from signatories to the Declaration of Arbroath. The only difference is that I know my ancestry back to each of these people, whereas others don’t. It’s also true that many ordinary Scots would share this descent from signatories. Scotland in the past was an extremely fluid society in terms of mixing between social strata. It’s not strictly a case of us and them, but very much we are all them.

On a more practical level I now want to learn more about the period and people involved. I’m reading Ted Cowan’s book on the Declaration of Arbroath for starters, and will see where I go from that.

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